The mainstream media continue to hammer away at the Bush administration for its supposed intelligence failures in Iraq. The New York Times, for example, recently editorialized that “nine months of fruitless searching” for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proves the administration’s case for war was “way off base.” The press is full of dire predictions about the consequences of this “intelligence failure” for our credibility on other international issues. Writing in the Washington Post, reporter Glenn Kessler warns that China now rejects our assessments of the North Korean nuclear program, although it’s not clear that China ever accepted those estimates in the first place. In terms reminiscent of Vietnam, congressional Democrats warn of a “credibility gap” that has “left our nation in a precarious position.”
The media have seized on several recent reports by non-governmental sources to buttress their case against the administration. In particular, there has been extensive coverage of a report produced by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Its authors claim that theirs is the first “thorough review of intelligence threat assessments,” although no one in the media has thus far questioned how this could be done without access to classified information. Nor has the media paid much attention to the credentials of the authors. As noted by the Washington Times’ Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough, however, all three have close ties to Democrats; two as congressional aides and one who worked in the Carter administration. None have prior experience in the U.S. intelligence community (IC). Ironically, only the BBC has identified Carnegie as a “liberal think tank; CNN’s reference to Carnegie as a “non-partisan, respected group” is more typical.
One author told the UK Guardian that the IC’s October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraqi WMD was “wildly off the mark.” The authors claim to have uncovered a “dramatic shift” in the IC’s assessments of Iraqi WMD, which they date to 2002 and attribute to “intense pressure” from key administration officials, especially Vice President Dick Cheney. By their account, intelligence analysts caved into this pressure and produced more “alarmist” estimates in 2002 that supported the administration’s case for war on Saddam Hussein.
But intelligence officials have already rejected that allegation. The CIA’s Stuart Cohen recently told ABC Nightline’s Ted Koppel that such charges are “nonsense.” He told Koppel that he and others have already testified “under oath” that they were not subject to such pressures. Last summer, the New York Times was forced to correct a story implying just that. In its correction, the Times reported that all serving intelligence officials had answered “no” when asked about pressures from the White House to shade their assessments.
Carnegie’s assertion that a “dramatic shift” in community assessments took place in 2002 is undercut by another critic of administration policy. Kenneth Pollack, who has worked at the CIA and also served in the Clinton administration, says that a “dramatic change” in the IC’s perception of the Iraqi WMD threat actually occurred during the Clinton administration. That is, long before the Bush administration took office. In an on-line interview with The Atlantic Monthly, he says that by the late 1990s the IC thought that Saddam Hussein was reconstituting his nuclear program and that the “Iraqis were making much greater progress in acquiring a nuclear weapon than they had before.” That judgment was widely held; Pollack said he “couldn’t think of anyone who did not believe that the Iraqis had a WMD program. There was simply no one.” The CIA’s Cohen told Nightline that there were “no surprises, no sudden changes” in the October estimate. As for congressional criticisms, Cohen said the intelligence in that estimate had been briefed to “no less than” six different congressional committees over the years.
Pollack does allege, without naming names, that certain high administration officials withheld the “whole truth” from the American public before the war. He echoes a charge made by the Carnegie report, although Carnegie’s is much more damning. Carnegie charges that the Bush administration “systematically misrepresented the threat” from Iraq’s WMD. Other critics, like the Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, disagree. Gellman has produced several investigative reports purporting to document the failure to uncover weapons stockpiles after the Iraq war. But Gellman told an on-line audience during a WashingtonPost.com chat, that the administration’s public statements on biological and chemical weapons and missiles “did not stray too far from the consensus among analysts.” Gellman sees more of a gap on the issue of nuclear weapons. But critics have yet to produce an example of the administration claiming that Saddam Hussein already possessed nuclear weapons.